Breaking Down The Wire

Faint Glimmers of Hope
Talking television.
Dec. 3 2006 6:16 AM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Steve,

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At your suggestion, I listened to the Burns interview on Fresh Air, and between that and this last episode, there is indeed much to ruminate on, especially this notion that sometimes life just gives you a moment—and, in places like West Baltimore, a moment that is usually fleeting.

But first, I've got to say, I, too, was reeling from this episode. It packed a wallop. In any storytelling, it's the conclusion that's usually most problematic. There's too often a feeling that things have been pulled together in some tidy fashion. Too often the writer or filmmaker tries too hard to make a point. Not to worry with Simon and company. Every moment, every plot turn is earned. (For me, the one moment that rang perhaps too Hollywoodish was Bubbles' accidental poisoning of Sharod—though, if I had to guess, that was probably based on some real-life incident. Which, of course, is the irony and the power of The Wire: It's fiction, but it may be more real on the inner city than anything else out there.) I've got to tell you, Steve, I'm not looking forward to watching the next episode. I worry about the kids, but selfishly I'm not ready for it to end. At least we have another season to look forward to.

This episode got me thinking—as it did you—about a question I get asked all the time: Why do some kids make it out and others don't? I could give the usual glib response, which is that they need a responsible, nurturing adult in their life or that they need a good, safe school or that they need a functioning home. But the inconvenient truth is that there is no truth here. We really don't know. In fact, Burns in the Fresh Air interview came closer to knowing than anything I've heard before when he talks about actress Felicia Pearson. She has perspective. She was able to step outside of herself.

In neighborhoods like West Baltimore, there's no room for missteps. It's only a short step to the cliff's edge, and then, man, it's one long fall. Burns talked about how the fate of kids in places like West Baltimore is pretty much determined in grade school. I'm not certain about that. I've seen kids who I thought were going to make it—the Michaels of the world—walk over the cliff's edge (or in some instances get pushed), and I've seen kids like Namond—who had everything stacked against them—somehow pull back far enough from the edge so that they at least had a swinging chance of getting out. It's often because they have a lifeline. (In Namond's case, he has Bunny Colvin, and even then, with Colvin pulling for him, I'm not convinced he's completely safe.) 

Seven years ago, I ran into a young woman (she was 20 at the time) whom I'd known off and on since she was 9. I'll call her Lisa. It was in a parking lot at the projects. She was leaning on the hood of a car, her clothes falling off of her ravaged, emaciated body. She resembled a clothes hanger. She pushed her unwashed hair away from her face, and called out my name. But I didn't recognize her. Then a mutual friend whispered, "That's Lisa." I looked again. She was nursing a beer, completely strung out on heroin and, to be honest, even having been told who it was, she bore absolutely no resemblance to the grinning, bouncing-off-the-walls 9-year-old I'd known. She asked me for a few dollars, which I gave her, and I told her to take care of herself, as if my admonition was going to make any kind of difference. I recall thinking, this is it, this is the last time I'm going to see her. She's lost. She's never coming back. And the worst of it was that I could have predicted that this was where she'd end up. By the time she was 11, she was staying out late at night, hanging with some of the neighborhood's teenage gangbangers, swigging beer and cheap wine in the vestibule of her building. I turned to walk away, angry. Angry at Lisa. Angry at the indifference of her community. Angry at the lack of any kind of civic will to even try to salvage this thrown-away life (let alone any will to acknowledge her).

I lost touch with Lisa, and then two weeks ago I was waiting in the lobby of the county hospital to visit her brother, who'd been shot five times and who was on life support. (He has since pulled through.) A woman behind me in line whispered my name, "Alex?" I turned, and saw this full-faced woman, grinning. I told her I was sorry, but she was going to have to remind me who she was. She laughed. "It's me, Lisa." I had to look again. She looked incredibly healthy, dressed in designer jeans and a bright colored blouse. Her hair was pulled back, and she'd regained her weight. She told me she'd been clean for six years. She told me that shortly after I saw her in the parking lot, her family had threatened to take away her two children, and that did it. She kicked heroin, cold turkey. She decided her kids were too important. Now she's married, working at the local library, and raising her kids. Look, the truth of the matter is that if it was just about her kids, she would have kicked heroin long before. But there was a moment when suddenly Lisa saw herself with clarity, with perspective. She could look ahead and see what awaited her, and she could look behind from whence she came. I don't know that she was able to laugh at herself then, but she's able to now.

Such are the vagaries of the human spirit, the vagaries of life. Why was Lisa able to make a reasonably good life for herself, and her brother (the one who'd been shot in what appears to be a case of mistaken identity) unable to kick the life of the streets? Think of the kids in The Wire. There's Michael surviving, even thriving, despite the fact that he's living with and caring for a drug fiend for a mom. Then Bug's father walks back into his life, and Michael can turn to two people for help: Marlo or Cutty. He chooses Marlo. Maybe if it had been a year later and he'd come to realize how deeply Cutty cared for him, he might have made a different choice. But he didn't. And he now finds himself on a journey from which there may be no return. (Though I know of kids who seemed in free fall only to right themselves as young adults.) Or consider Namond. Do you think he would have been able to admit to himself, let alone others, that he wasn't cut out for the life his parents had chosen for him, if he didn't have Colvin to lean on?

I don't mean to suggest that we don't have answers. We do. Or at least we have some. It's just that they're not simple ones. Too often kids in places like West Baltimore or the West Side of Chicago get blindsided. They get hit by the equivalent of urban IEDs that they and others around them don't see coming—or, inversely, there's this small crack of opportunity, and they're in a place personally where they're able to recognize it and crawl through it. The problem is, though, there's little room for mistakes or for hesitation; those moments pass quickly, sometimes even before the kids have a chance to crawl through. We think that for each of these kids, they need the same thing. But they don't. The webs of their individual lives are as varied as anyone's anywhere. And their internal strengths and frailties differ from kid to kid.

I like Burns' explanation, though, the best: that it's those kids who can step out of themselves, laugh at themselves, have some perspective who are most likely to be able to take advantage of those moments. When I saw Lisa, and she was telling me about her time on heroin, she was shaking her head in disbelief at the person she used to be. She remembered seeing me that time in the parking lot. "I know," she told me, smiling. "I didn't look so good." I wanted to ask her more about that time, why she thought she made it out and her brother hasn't. Next time I see her, I guess, which I suspect will be before long.

Alex

Alex Kotlowitz is author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River.